Rev. George Miller
Life is a series of discoveries, learnings and lessons.
For example, the concept of death.
Due to different experiences this week I’ve come to the conclusion that there are various kinds of death.
There is the kind in which death is death. For example, when a mousetrap snaps and breaks a rodent’s neck, there is no coming back.
Or, that unmistakable sickingly sweet smell that comes from the walls, signaling that something somewhere is dead and decomposing.
Then there is the kind of death that seems most assured, unless you do something about it.
For example, my flower garden. Due to the lack of rain, my plants have been drying up, wilting, turning brown, woody, and ready to be pulled up.
Monday I watered the garden to at least give the hibiscus a chance to survive.
Next day two of the plants were suddenly standing taller and seemed to have added some leaves over night.
Watered 30 more minutes on Tuesday. Next day a little green bud appeared on one of those ready-to-be-pulled up plants; a pop of purple decorated the front bush.
Watered some more on Wednesday. Now one plant had some pink peeping out and the petunias were standing upright as opposed to being slumped over.
By Saturday a plant Maydean gave me last year suddenly showed not one, not two, but three flowers fixin’ to flourish.
And in this seemingly dead and done garden an orange butterfly flit and fluttered around.
So there are at least 2 kinds of death- the dead-is-dead kind, and the dead-until-you-do-something kind.
There’s at least one other- the gone-but-not-forgotten kind, in which memories can make themselves known at any moment and loved ones can seem momentarily alive.
That’s what I experienced when I spoke about my Father’s twinkling eyes last week. It’s what happens when one of his favorite songs come on.
I can be driving down Lakeview and if something from “Chorus Line” or “Camelot” comes on, it’s as if I’m back in Dad’s car, going to the store or coming back from Commack…
…It is not that easy to talk about death. It’s a topic that affects us all.
But there’s something about today’s reading that is particularly pernicious.
How do we speak about a story in which a dead person is brought back to life when we know, we KNOW, that in this congregation are people who have lost a child, a spouse, a friend, a grandchild, a parent, a peer, and there is no way, no fantabulous way in which that person is ever, ever, EVER going to come back no matter how much we pray, no matter how much we believe, no matter how much we beg, plead, threaten, thank, or try to coerce God?
Oh! It would be so easy to be the kind of preacher who would say “This story is 100% real. It happened just as it was told, with every fact, every figure, ever detail correct!”
Then I could just dismiss anyone simply because their faith is weak and they truly don’t believe.
Oh! It would be so easy to be the kind of preacher who would say “This story is 100% made-up. It never happened and it is simply an allegory.”
Then I could just dismiss anyone for not being illuminated and progressive enough in their theology.
But to do the first could wound people who truly do believe, pray really hard and possess a truly fortified faith.
And to do the latter would strip all sense of mystery and wonder from the scriptures, to deny the wonderfulness of a God who cannot be contained.
What to do with a story like Lazarus when on one hand you are realistic and understand the allure of allegory?
What to do with a story like Lazarus when on the other hand you know that miracles do materialize and love the magical mysterious?
I don’t know what to tell you today in regards to is this story real news or fake news, if it actually happened as told or if it’s just a faith-based fairy tale.
Do we explain or explain away the story?
Perhaps like the flowers that simply needed some watering, there is a middle ground.
Perhaps between fact and fiction, we can find…truth. What is a truth that this story of Lazarus is trying to tell us?
One truth is that God, through Jesus, has a way to bring forth new life even when things seems dead as dead can be.
Let’s take a look at the story- what the people say, what they do, and how we know them.
There’s Jesus, who’s hanging out with his bros. He hears that Lazarus is sick but he delays going back for 2 days.
The disciples tell him that it’s too risky to go there, but he goes anyway.
There’s Martha who meets Jesus, holds him accountable for current events, while also proclaiming that Jesus is the great I AM.
There’s Mary who rushes to Jesus. She kneels, she speaks, she weeps.
Jesus weeps too.
Mary shows Jesus where the body of Lazarus is. With them are the Jewish neighbors; they console the sisters; they cry.
At the tomb Jesus stands amongst all the people. He speaks. He thanks God. He calls out to the one he loves.
He tells them to unbind Lazarus when he emerges from the tomb.
But there is one person in this story who does not speak, who does not say a word, who barely acts or does anything.
We have no idea what this person looks like; their appearance is hidden behind gauze and strips of cloth.
It is Lazarus, who is dead, who is cut off from community and family, who is bound up and blocked by a boulder.
It is Lazarus who is brought back to life.
So- why, in this momentous narrative, doesn’t the author give Lazarus any lines? Why doesn’t the writer tell us what Lazarus looks like?
Why doesn’t the Gospel go into detail about just who this person is that Jesus weeps for?
…Could it be, in a wibbly-wobbly, metaphysical kind of way that Lazarus is actually us?
Could it be, regardless if this story actually happened or is fully made-up, that the author is trying to tell us something-
That we are Lazarus; that we have all known what is it like to have died in some way; that we have all at one time been bound up and behind a boulder?
Could the author purposely not have given us any details or words to describe Lazarus because the author wants this scripture to be like a mirror- a mirror that we hold up and see ourselves and our own story being acted out?
Maybe the Gospel of John doesn’t want us to ask if God, through Jesus, can revive someone we love.
Maybe the Gospel of John wants us to recall “Once I was dead and bound and behind a boulder and because of Jesus I became alive again.”
Think about that for a moment…
How many of us here have a testimony? How many here can point to a time in which somehow, some way we were dead?
Dead to the world? Dead to life? Dead to love?
How many here, some way, somehow were dead?
Dead due to addiction? Dead due to finances? Dead to a job situation or unemployment?
How many here today have ever been dead to family or friends or even to yourself?
Dead is not fun. Dead is not pretty.
Dead is dark. It is dank and rank. Dead is depressing.
And yet we have all, ALL been dead at some part or at some point in our life.
Anyone who is part of a church experiences death all around them; there is no way of escaping it.
Church members die; our matriarchs and patriarchs pass on. We hear about one another’s family members and friends, so we pray, we console, we send cards, we weep with and for them.
We also witness the other kinds of death people go through from divorce to disabilities to dashed dreams.
So we pray, we console, we send cards, we weep with and for them.
But…because of Christ, we also get to see people coming back to life and we get to see them being unbound.
Think of those we know who have gone through the process of losing a spouse, who have endured the pain of seeing a loved one fade away.
And though it is never easy, and though it takes time, how many have been unbound from their heartbreak and discovered that it’s possible to love again, it is possible to date, to woo and be wooed, and it is most certainly possible to be romantically revived at 50, 60, 70 and 80?
Think of how many have been caught up in the death grip of addiction. How addiction has its own way in which it leaves a stench and separates one from family and friends, God and all the things that make life good.
How many recovering addicts can pinpoint the moment in which they had hit rock bottom, they felt most separated from God, that they were basically dead?
How many can point to the moment in which it felt as if Jesus had come to their tomb, called their name and had the cemetery clothe unbound?
How many other forms of death have people experienced here?
The news that cancer had appeared? The chronic condition that will never go away buy only increase?
The death-like state that comes from oppression, depression, recession?
How many can say that some way, at some point in their life, they were dead, and Jesus Christ, came into their lives, wept for them, and said “Come out.”
Today’s sermon dares to say that we- WE are all Lazarus, and that Lazarus looks like us, Lazarus speaks like us.
Because Lazarus is us.
As Lazarus, there are ways in which we die; there are ways in which we are raised; there are ways we are left forever changed, and affected by our experience.
We are, each and every one of us, Lazarus. We all have experienced a death, a binding up, and a separation.
We are, each and every one of us, Lazarus. We are beloved by Jesus. We are worthy of weeping over.
We are, each and every one of us, Lazarus. Which mean that in Christ, we can experience new life, and a setting free.
In Jesus, we’re all given that chance to experience the Good and Everlasting News and to once again sit with Jesus at the table, and to be part of the ever-living community. Amen and amen.